As a fashion statement, Japan's footballers look moth-eaten

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 October, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 October, 1997, 12:00am

Fashion, in its broadest sense, and sport are interwoven in modern-day Japan.

Football's J.League was popularised by bringing in designer-label players such as Zico, Dunga and Gary Lineker.

Rugby sought to give itself a Versace look by wooing the likes of Fijian maestro Waisale Serevi and former All Blacks Graeme Bachop and Jamie Joseph.

The National Basketball Association regularly put their stars on the catwalk which is Japan, and just last week the National Hockey League paraded all-time great Mark Messier before a full-house Tokyo crowd in a regular-season game.

Even lacrosse, not one of the world's great sports, is enjoying a boom in Japan because the players think the attire is way cool.

In such a fad-driven environment, success can be flimsy and fleeting. Football came close to toppling baseball as the top spectator sport a few seasons ago but there are signs this year that the image-conscious no longer want it in their wardrobe.

With Japan co-hosting the 2002 World Cup with South Korea this is a worrying situation for the Japanese Football Association and FIFA, soccer's world governing body.

Japan has the infrastructure, stadia and sponsorship yen to stage the World Cup but without passion for the game itself, holding the tournament in the country would be all but meaningless.

That's where the national football team comes in. If there's one thing more important to youthful Japanese than a love for all things fashionable, it's a love of country.

Patriotism is permanently in vogue and there was a general feeling that if Japan qualified for next year's World Cup in France, the trendy would look favourably on the 'Soccer' label.

Sadly, until now, Japan's performances in the Asian qualifying games have been shabby and they could be destined to four more years on the hanger.

Fifty thousand turned up for their home game against arch-rivals South Korea, a match-up which turned out to be off-the-peg against tailor-made. Japanese manager Shu Kamo made several tactical blunders while his opposite number, Cha Bum-kun, executed some inspired substitutions which turned the game the Koreans' way.

Kamo's days were numbered and when Kazakhstan scored in the dying moments to force a 1-1 draw in the next game, he was declared surplus to requirements.

Hardliner Takeshi Okada, a 40-year-old ex-player, was put in charge but he is not seen as hip enough to satisy the demands of the smart soccer set.

It's likely that a technical director's post will be created with four foreigners who have made their mark in Japan vying for the job.

Former national team manager Hans Ooft, successful club coach Stuart Baxter, Argentine Ossie Ardiles and the revered Brazilian Zico are the designers of choice.

With one of these established labels attached to the national side, Japan could still be among the summer collection at France 1998.